In the late 18th century — as America was on the cusp of freeing itself from the tyranny of arbitrary rule and from laws, medicine and freedoms constrained by religious superstition — Europe was, state by state, wrestling with many of the same issues. It was the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and if it's a sketchy historical period for most Americans, the Oscar-nominated Danish drama A Royal Affair makes a stately, entertaining way of bringing us up to speed.
It's a tragic romance, a tale of idealism, usurped power and reform ahead of its time, of palace intrigues, madness and forbidden love. And it's mostly true.
In the 1760s, Princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) has been groomed in Britain to marry King Christian VII of Denmark. She hopes he's kind and well-read. But Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is bratty, temperamental and immature. He's also a bit mad but functional enough to serve the purposes of the entrenched nobility that runs the government and his court, including his scheming stepmother, the Queen Dowager (Trine Dyrholm).
The king, thanks to the machinations of some exiled nobles who want a friendly voice to wangle them back onto the court, is given a new physician. Johann Friedrich Struensee, played with smoldering earnestness by Mads Mikkelsen, is "an Enlightenment Man," a healer who treats his work as a higher calling, and an atheist intellectual who sees science, not superstition, as a way to treat illness and look at the world.
Struensee indulges the monarch's penchant for prostitutes, drink and brawling. He becomes confidant and confessor, and he turns Christian into a more reasonable, manageable mess. He could even be a help to the morose Caroline, something he suggests to Christian. "Make her fun," the king commands. "I want a fun queen."
But as the queen and the doctor bond, Struensee provides a kind of fun the king did not have in mind.
Co-writer/director Nikolaj Arcel, who scripted The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, tells this story in a languorous fashion, pausing to let the doctor and the queen find their chemistry. He takes the time to show the slow, idealistic machinations of the queen and doctor, who took more and more power at court and used it, high-handedly, to bring Denmark into the Enlightenment.
That sluggish pace allows us to savor the performances, the meticulous sense of place and time, and the dread that builds in the back of the viewer's mind. This will all come to tears, we just know it.
A Royal Affair, told mostly in Danish with English subtitles, is a lovely history lesson, but it's a film without the spark of invention that makes this parable feel modern. But Vikander, Mikkelsen and Følsgaard make this history riveting and tragic, and a story relevant in any age.
'A Royal Affair'
R for sexual content and some violent images. Magnolia Pictures. 2:17. Mostly in Danish with subtitles. Kentucky.